‘Choice’ Words At a Finnish Design Seminar

In late August, an international roster of designers—Matali Crasset, Harri Koskinen, Jasper Morrison, Patricia Urquiola, Anna von Schewen, Gaetano Pesce, and architect I–aki Ábalos, along with MoMA curator Paola Antonelli—convened in Jyväskylä, Finland to display and discuss their work. Under the banner “Choices,” the two-day program—part of the annual Alvar Aalto Design seminar—aimed to illuminate the decisions—material, formal, technical, personal, and economic—that inform each of these designers’ work. But as the presentations unfolded, a very different dialogue emerged: one that concentrated on how designers’ ideological choices can shape their entire careers.

With some work playfully exploratory, some aggressively functional, some formally refined, and some politically expressive, the pieces presented a design continuum of sorts, from conceptualists to pragmatists. On these opposite ideological ends, of course, were Britain’s master of rigor (Morrison) and Italy’s principal provocateur (Pesce), a pair whose varying approaches were mirrored in their presentations.

Speaking on the first day of the seminar, Morrison offered an overview of his elegant, streamlined designs that, above all, aim to be useful. Such utilitarianism has been his modus operandi throughout his career. For example, his early Plywood chair, made with an electric jigsaw and some “ship’s curves,” is not so different than his industrially produced Sim chair for Vitra, in that both fully exploit the minimal materials used. The former took advantage of plywood’s inherent flexibility, with the curved wooden cross bars beneath the thin seat cushioning the user, while the flexible plastic seat and back of the Sim are mounted on a C-shaped frame, so the chair adjusts to the sitter’s movements.

In his 2002 monograph Everything but the Walls, Morrison noted that many objects are made to court publicity and raise their makers’ profiles. He echoed the sentiments at “Choices,” imploring the crowd to remember that design is meant to improve our daily lives.

While Morrison believes design’s role is to add value through functionality, Pesce uses design to create social change. “We need to provoke difference, because the International Style is gone—fortunately,” he said, before presenting a series of objects that might be perceived as art. His Chador lamps (based on the head-to-toe black garment worn by Islamic women) have feet that, upon closer inspection, are actually the tiny impaled bodies of women. His famous Up5 chair, also called La Mama, recalls the voluptuous Venus of Willendorf and is tied to a round ottoman, a ball-and-chain meant to symbolize society’s attitudes toward women.

For her part, seminar organizer Sari Anttonen suggested a functional conceit behind “Choices”: “I thought that as the designers presented their work and told the stories behind them, the audience could somehow understand their choices,” she said. And these choices, as the panelists showed, could be to approach design as a domestic tool, a conceptual experiment, or a political statement.

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